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Unfinished Business

Bill Doyle is on a mission to prove that Saudi Arabia bankrolled the 9/11 attacks

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Four months into the Iraq War, David Aufhauser, then general counsel of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, told the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security that Saudi Arabia was the epicenter of terrorism financing. For a casual student of the 9/11 attacks, this may seem to be an obvious conclusion: Osama bin Laden was a wealthy Saudi; his family, which owns a construction conglomerate valued in the billions, has enjoyed very close ties with the Saudi royal family since the 1930s. (Last month, the Saudi government awarded the Saudi Binladin Group $1.23 billion to build what will be the world’s tallest building, near the coastal city of Jeddah.) It also seemed likely that, in addition to bin Laden’s own fortune, the wealth of other sympathetic Saudis could have helped fund the attacks carried out by 19 Arab hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals.

Only a few months before 9/11, John O’Neill, the FBI counterterrorism chief at the time, shared with French terrorism financing expert Jean-Charles Brisard (the lead investigator for the plaintiffs in the 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism suit) his frustrations in extracting potentially valuable information from Saudi officials. “All the answers, all the clues that could enable us to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization, are in Saudi Arabia,” he told Brisard.

But in the months following the attacks, there was no retaliation – military, economic or diplomatic – against Saudi Arabia. Instead, the U.S. bombed Afghanistan, a deeply impoverished country that bin Laden’s organization, al-Qaida, had used as a base (though al-Qaida’s operatives were, and still are, spread around the world), and Iraq, a nation that had nothing whatsoever to do with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the first airstrikes on Iraq in March 2003, the U.S. has spent $797.3 billion on the ensuing war and has seen 4,474 U.S. soldiers and more than 102,000 Iraqi civilians killed from the resulting violence. The war in Afghanistan, which by some accounts is now the longest military conflict in U.S. history, has only been marginally successful in its aims: al-Qaida has found refuge in neighboring Pakistan, and the U.S. is now in the midst of talks with the Taliban, the fundamentalist group that President George W. Bush declared in 2004 to be “no longer … in existence.”

Throughout the term of President Bush, who was extremely close with the Saudi elite (in a book dedicated to this relationship, journalist Craig Unger compiled an appendix detailing $1.4 billion in transactions between the Saudi royal family and businesses tied to the Bush family), discussions with and about Saudi Arabia have generally been kept highly confidential. It appeared that a change was in order when President Obama was elected – only weeks after taking office, he met with family members of 9/11 victims, among them Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband was killed on Sept. 11; Breitweiser reported that the president told her he was willing to have the pages declassified. But more than two years later, nothing of the sort has happened.

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